Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 November 2016
Victimisation by the police is purported to be widespread in cities in the USA, but there is limited data on police–public encounters from community samples. This is partly due to an absence of measures for assessing police violence exposure from the standpoint of civilians. As such, the demographic distribution and mental health correlates of police victimisation are poorly understood. The aims of this study were to present community-based prevalence estimates of positive policing and police victimisation based on assessment with two novel measures, and to test the hypotheses that (1) exposure to police victimisation would vary across demographic groups and (2) would be associated with depression and psychological distress.
The Survey of Police–Public Encounters study surveyed adults residing in four US cities to examine the prevalence, demographic distribution and psychological correlates of police victimisation. Participants (N = 1615) completed measures of psychological distress (K-6 scale), depression (Patient Health Questionnaire 9) and two newly constructed measures of civilian-reported police–public encounters. Both measures were developed to assess police victimisation based on the WHO domains of violence, which include physical violence (with and without a weapon, assessed separately), sexual violence (inappropriate sexual contact, including public strip searches), psychological violence (e.g., threatening, intimidating, stopping without cause, or using discriminatory slurs) and neglect (police not responding when called or responding too late). The Police Practices Inventory assesses lifetime history of exposure to positive policing and police victimisation, and the Expectations of Police Practices Scale assesses the perceived likelihood of future incidents of police victimisation. Linear regression models were used to test for associations between police–public encounters and psychological distress and depression.
Psychological violence (18.6%) and police neglect (18.8%) were commonly reported in this sample and a substantial minority of respondents also reported more severe forms of violence, specifically physical (6.1%), sexual (2.8%) and physical with a weapon (3.3%). Police victimisation was more frequently reported by racial/ethnic minorities, males, transgender respondents and younger adults. Nearly all forms of victimisation (but not positive policing) were associated with psychological distress and depression in adjusted linear regression models.
Victimisation by police appears to be widespread, inequitably distributed across demographic groups and psychologically impactful. These findings suggest that public health efforts to both reduce the prevalence of police violence and to alleviate its psychological impact may be needed, particularly in disadvantaged urban communities.
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